Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few months, you’ve heard about the viral movement sparked by high-school students from Florida. Organizing hundreds of marches across the country, the March for Our Lives and #NeverAgain movements have captured the nation’s attention.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this phenomenon has been the way it was organized: mostly through social media and technology, and largely organic. Students have done it themselves, in the process getting the backing of some of the biggest celebrities in the world (you may have heard of Oprah, who donated half a million dollars to the Washington, D.C. march).
While millennials are still the most disruptive and yet sought-after demographic in the market today, this next generation of consumers and workers (most often dubbed Generation Z) has made it clear they are a force to be reckoned with.
Businesses must begin thinking about how to engage Generation Z now, or risk being left behind. Just as the millennial generation has left a trail of dust among Fortune 500 companies, where over half of the companies that were on the list in 2000 have disappeared.
What can companies start doing now to ensure they’re tuning into the needs and desires of Generation Z as they begin entering the workforce and become a major force in the American economy?
Be authentic
Remember when your parents tried to use the slang that you and your friends used? It felt really weird, right?
Don’t be like your parents: Don’t try to fake it when it comes to Generation Z.
According to a recent survey of 13-24 year olds, 67 percent agreed that “being true to their values and beliefs makes a person cool.” Building up a large social following and utilizing influencers may become a tactic of the past, as only 19 percent said they admire something or someone because they have a mass following.
It’s not about the number of followers you have, or who shares your content, it’s about whether you’re being authentic. Rather than trying to speak the language of Generation Z, as many companies have tried to do with millennials, businesses should be authentic to their brand and mission first and foremost.
This means a content-first approach could reap benefits, where you’re focused on generating high-quality, meaningful content as opposed to creating specialized content aimed at specific audiences and channels. Rather than trying to guess what types of videos or ads or content Generation Z will be into, make content that is good for the sake of making it good. That is much more likely to resonate with the next generation of potential customers.
They aren’t millennials
Don’t make the mistake of grouping today’s youth with the generation that came before them.
As one millennial manager puts it, “I’ve discovered that Generation Z and millennials aren’t very much alike when it comes to our digital environments.”
Millennials have always known the Internet, but Generation Z has always known mobile. The way they interact with and see the world is significantly different than any other generation. They’ve already made it clear that they are fiercely independent, and that will hold true when trying to engage them as customers.
While Generation Z will always be fiercely independent, there are some key anchors where businesses might be able to reach them. For example, 94 percent of Generation Z say companies ought to address social and environmental issues, according to a 2017 survey — more than millennials or the general population. Making corporate responsibility a major part of your company mission and brand messaging could help to engage this generation.
The key is to always listen and never presume to know what campaign will be effective with the next generation. Use research to find those major anchors that Generation Z cares about, then create messaging that is authentic and true to your brand around those flashpoints. And start segmenting Gen Z out as its own demographic now, not after you realize none of your campaigns are reaching them.
Use social media, but don’t be defined by it
Generation Z is the first generation to grow up with omnipresent social media. For many of them, social media is not just an interesting tool or a means to an end, it’s a necessary medium for engaging peers.  As Fast Company puts it, “Gen Z seek immediate validation and acceptance through social media, since that’s where all their peers are and where many of the important conversations happen.”
But they’ve also seen the negative stereotypes around digital personas that have affected the generation before them, whether its spending all of their time on their phones or living life only through digital platforms. Generation Z does not want to be defined by their online personas.
There’s no question the next generation is extremely adept at using social platforms, as evidenced by the way they were able to organize hundreds of simultaneous marches across the country, largely using only digital platforms. But that doesn’t mean that social media is the only way to engage them, or that they will respond more to social campaigns than offline ones. Generation Z is less defined by social media than by the tension between social media and proving themselves offline.
Businesses should have an established social presence, always, but it’s not the only game, nor should it be. Offline events, community building and interactions that add a personal touch are likely to resonate with Generation Z just as much as an excellent social campaign.
You know what happens when you assume
This is a generation that will never hear “you’re too young” or “you can’t do that” and accept it. But that doesn’t mean they’re fickle; the brands that are able to engage these customers and align with their values stand to reap the rewards of the most tech-savvy generation yet.
Don’t try to trick this generation. They will sniff you out. Instead, be honest, get behind good causes and create strategies which don’t patronize or try to emulate something you don’t understand, but seek to add something meaningful to the conversation.
The key to beginning to understand Generation Z is to accept that you don’t understand them. And the second you profess that you do get it, they might take a different turn simply to prove you wrong.